So there I was, minding my own business and watching Jeopardy on TV. Alex Trebek was talking to a perfectly normal looking young contestant, when the woman says…she's a Synesthete.
No, wait! Half the audience and I ask (mentally), "What's a Synesthete?" And while she's explaining that she hears colors…wham! A story idea is born.
Writers are always on the alert for different situations, and this one has plenty of potential as an intriguing setup for a novel. Author Judy Reeves says that the job of the writer is to observe the details of everyday life and record them for the world, and a big part of that is paying attention to how these details are perceived. But what if…?
So, What Is Synesthesia?
Synesthesia or synaesthesia, which comes from ancient Greek words meaning "together" and "sensation", is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. It occurs because of increased communication between sensory regions of the brain and is involuntary, automatic, and stable over time.
In other words, synesthetes are people who's brains link two or more of the five senses i.e. see a sound or smell, hear or taste a color, and so on. It is a consistent perception of reality to that person.
And while it may be called a neurological condition, the term "neurological" only refers to the brain as the basis of the perceptual difference. It's not a medical condition and rarely interferes with normal daily functioning. It is what it is -- like being color blind. That's just the way those individuals perceive things, and it takes synesthetes a while to learn that not everyone perceives the world in the same manner.
Although most synesthetes discover as children that they perceive things differently, it is generally reported to be a neutral or pleasant experience. Most don't consider it a handicap, but a gift or "sixth sense." However, some fear ridicule for their unusual perception, and may end up living in isolation and alone in their experiences. Two or more of any of the five senses can be linked, but several types are more common.
In this most common form of synesthesia, individual letters, numbers, or days of the week are perceived as having colors. While not all individuals see the same color for the same letter or number, there are some commonalities. Several sources indicated that the letter A is mostly likely to been seen as red; the letter O, white or black; S is usually yellow.
Spatial Sequence Synesthesia
People with this form of synesthesia see numerical sequences as points in space. For example, the number 1 may appear as further away and the number 2 closer. Synesthetes with SSS tend to have extraordinary memories and are able to recall past events and memories in greater detail and more accurately.
Sometimes called chromesthesia, this is the form where voices, background sounds, music and other auditory stimulus triggers a phenomenon described as fireworks of color which fade when the sound ends. It can be a single sound like a single musical note or a wide variety of sounds that trigger the experience.
The sound can alter the perceived brightness, intensity, directional movement and other aspects of the color display, which is described as seeing it on a screen in front of one's face rather than in the mind's eye. While the same sound doesn't produce the same results with all synesthetes, loud tones are generally brighter, softer tones paler, and lower tones darker than high ones.
This seems really weird to me, but what do I know?
Number Form Synesthesia
Whenever a synesthete with NFS thinks of numbers, a mental map of numbers appears automatically and involuntarily. Cross activation between regions of the parietal lobe that control numerical recognition and spatial cognition may be the cause. This one was hard for me to understand.
The Galton Number Form - Wikipedia
Eric Johnson, software developer, writes on his blog that he see numbers differently. "I see them on a path—one that is and always has been the same. What shocked me about the image above is that it's nearly identical to how I see numbers, although mine tends to take a slight horseshoe shape. The only real difference is that my path keep rising up to the left (the 200s are higher than the 300s). If I'm counting, I sort of zoom-in on the particular number I'm on (each number on the path is written in a space like a board game), with my point of view, or camera angle, changes based on where I'm at on the number path."
I've always wondered if programmers see numbers differently. I guess some of them do.
Ordinal Linguistic Personification
OLP is where ordered sequences such as days, month, letters, or numbers are associated with personality types, such as the Wikipedia example where one individual said, "T's are generally crabbed, ungenerous creatures. U is a soulless sort of thing. 4 is honest, but… 3 I cannot trust." Yikes!
This is rare. Here, individual words and the phonemes of spoken language create a taste sensation in the mouth. To some, three senses are combined and the tastes have colors. Well, maybe this one isn't as rare as the researchers think. Doesn't the word chocolate cause the writer's mouth to water with that delicious, comforting taste? I certainly don't get the same reaction with the technical name theobroma cacao. In some people, words evoke taste of food no longer made or on the market.
This form is also rare, but when the individual with MTS sees another person being touched, the synesthete feels the touch as well. They can also feel the pain of another when that person is hurt. Perhaps there are real empaths.
Just a Few Words of History
The ancient Greeks philosophers seemed to be aware of the condition when they asked "Is the color (what we now call timbre) of music quantifiable?" Both Isaac Newton and Goethe suggested that musical tones and colors shared frequencies (which, actually, is incorrect).
The first medical description of colored hearing was written in 1812 by German Gustav Fechner. His thesis stirred up interest, but testing proved difficult and it "faded into science oblivion." Medical interest waned until the cognitive revolution in the 1980s.
In the early studies, the estimated frequency varied widely, as high as 1 in 20 to 1 in 20,000. Since then, with more studies, it is estimated that 1 in 23 individuals has some kind of synesthesia, and 1 in 90 have colored graphemes.
Recent studies show that the condition runs in families, which suggests a genetic origin. There is an almost equal sex ratio, 1.1:1.
It's a complicated subject with links to other areas of study. If you're interest, I've listed several references to start with.
Hear Ye, All Authors and Readers
What kind of stories does this condition bring to your mind? A teacher trying to work with a child who is a synesthete but no one knows it? A musician struggling to cope with music she loves but stimulates tastes in her mouth? Leave a comment and tell me what stories this suggests to you.